Nodeul School for the Disabled

<p><em>Boetineun Mom</em> (The body that withstands). Photo: @kwonkeum<em> </em>@neuj_.</p>

Boetineun Mom (The body that withstands). Photo: @kwonkeum @neuj_.

This text was written for the first Issue of The Invisible Archive – Volume Seoul and published in print in March 2024 together with an interview with philosopher Goh Byeong-gwon and co-principal of Nodeul School Kim Myung Hak. The Korean translation of this text by Yon Natalie Mik and Iden Sungyoung Kim is available on The Invisible Archive (TIA)'s website. We would like to thank TIA's editors for the permission to republish the essay online.

1. “A place where movement occurs”

This essay delves into the nature of introductions. What does it truly mean to introduce someone? One might argue that introducing necessitates a profound understanding of the subject being introduced. For events, the introduction may demand firsthand witnessing of the facts, while introducing a social movement demands integral participation. The question arises: who holds the authority to introduce another? Can introductions exist without representation or being representative? I refrain from claiming expertise—my lack of Korean language already underscores this impossibility. While I cannot speak as a mere witness, I can bear witness, providing a personal account of an encounter. Therefore, allow me the privilege of introducing to you these people.

In March 2023, I visited South Korea for the first time and I didn’t have a clear proposition in mind except to seek solace and strength with my partner Yon Natalie Mik amid a period of personal hardship. I reached out to Goh Byeong-gwon (고 병권) inspired by an article he had written nearly 10 years prior, published in a magazine that had long been discontinued but had piqued my current interest. In that article, Byeong-gwon explored the loss of hyeonjang (현장, Eng.: site or on-site) for Korean intellectuals in the 1990s, defining it as “a place where an event takes place, and where movement occurs.”1 In the article, he described how, amid the pressure exerted by state surveillance on universities, the mid-1980s witnessed the emergence of research organizations outside of the institutional framework. These places served as nodal points for organizing knowledge and discourse within the movement and served as places that aspired to the recovery of hyeonjangs. A tangible manifestation of this idea of movement is a 2006 march, which protested the neoliberal restructuring of Korean society and was organized by Byeong-gwon and friends at Suyu+Nomo (수유+너머), a self-supporting intellectual commune in Seoul, to which he belonged. Byeong-gwon recalls that the activists marched ten hours a day for ten days from Jeolla Province to Seoul. After each day’s march, a meeting was held, and the marchers engaged in discussions with locals: fishermen and farmers in the crisis of the Saemangeum dyke, teachers of the socially disadvantaged, environmental activists, residents of the Daechuri village who were threatened by the plan to build a new US military base, migrant and precarious workers, and the severely disabled. All of these people have been marginalized or left behind in the fast-paced process of Korean capitalist development.2

Yon and I met with Byeong-gwon at different sites during two visits to Seoul in 2023. Our initial meeting took place at SuyuNomo1043, an organization created by some former members of Suyu+Nomo, followed by another encounter at the Nodeul School for the Disabled [노들장애인야학, hereinafter referred to as Nodeul].4 2023 marked the thirtieth anniversary of Nodeul School. Originally founded as an evening program for the workers of Jeongnip Electronics (정립전자), after its eviction at the end of 2008, the school occupied Marronier Park in the form of tents until it secured a new space in a nearby building located at Dongsung-gil 25, in the Daehang-no area of the Jongno district in Seoul. Today, Nodeul is a day school for adults with severe disabilities5 and is also a central hub for the disability rights movement in South Korea. Byeong-gwon has been working as a researcher and a philosophy teacher at Nodeul since 2008. I was fascinated by how the practice of teaching philosophy to the severely disabled could transform our understanding of philosophy itself. I asked him about his first experience teaching at Nodeul, and he told us that the classroom was empty when he arrived at the school building because all the students were on the street protesting. He followed the students and the philosophy class took place on-site.

<p>Goh Byeong-gwon teaching philosophy on the street, 2008. Photo: Kim Yumi.</p>

Goh Byeong-gwon teaching philosophy on the street, 2008. Photo: Kim Yumi.

After consulting with Yon, I proposed to Byeong-gwon the idea of interviewing him about the school. He was hesitant at first. I sensed his concerns about voice and representation. Would he be the person who could/should speak in first person about the school? If so, from which position: as a teacher or as a researcher? After a tour of the classrooms, we walked to share a meal in the school’s canteen. The school canteen provides daily meals for students and staff while serving as a workplace for the students. During our lunch, Kim Myung Hak (김명학) briefly joined our table. Byeong-gwon introduced Yon and me to Myung Hak, explaining our intention to interview someone from the school. Myung Hak responded without hesitation, “Set the date!” The biography of Kim Myung Hak, who has been a student at Nodeul for thirty years since its inception, and who recently assumed the role of co-principal, stands in stark contrast to the finitude and eminence of an extremely competitive education system such as South Korea’s, which is characterized by the promise of career fulfillment and is marked by the injunction and temporalities of qualifications and exams like the Suneung [수능]. During our subsequent meeting, I remember asking Myung Hak when he thought he would finish studying. He answered that as long as Nodeul exists, he will exist as a student. To me, the temporalities of his biography are to be understood as a crucial revolt against the governance of bodies.

Outside the school, an efficient taxi service is bustling with the arrival and departure of students. We learned that this service has been carried on and maintained for a long time by the same teachers and activists from the school, who operated the taxis late at night from 10 pm to 2 am due to the limited capacity of the school van to make multiple round trips. Since the school functioned as a night program for the workers of Jeongnip Electronics, located on a hill on the outskirts of Seoul, the van carrying students and its drivers is more than a mere van, it serves as a form of storytelling—a narrative of emancipation and solidarity.

<p>(left to right) Yon Natalie Mik, Paolo Caffoni, Kim Myung Hak, Goh Byeong-gwon, 2023.</p>

(left to right) Yon Natalie Mik, Paolo Caffoni, Kim Myung Hak, Goh Byeong-gwon, 2023.

2. How do we translate?

We sit together in a tiny room—Myung Hak, Byeong-gwon, Yon, and I. The room appears to be designed for one-on-one conversations, creating a semblance of an intimate yet porous space, partly isolated from my perception of the unpredictable movements that surround us. Upstairs, it seems like a drum lesson is taking place—Myung Hak describes it as the school having a “smell of life.” The table in the center occupies almost half the room, which we pull toward us, pressing ourselves against the back wall to make more space for Myung Hak’s wheelchair to enter. This movement is repeated at times when Myung Hak takes regular breaks during our prolonged conversation.

How can one render the nuances of Myung Hak’s firm yet tender voice? I paid particular attention to the tonal qualities of his voice, and not speaking Korean, I faced extended pauses waiting for Yon’s translation. When the verbal exchange for me transcended signification, I relied on gestures, tones, gazes, and breathing. This relieved me of any presumption that I could possibly grasp everything at once. I rely on the relationship with Yon who tells me that:

Myung Hak’s voice is soft yet carries a decidedness, skilled in delivering his message. His ability to distill messages succinctly and simply never ceased to intrigue me throughout the whole conversation. He is patient with me, pausing when I fail to grasp a word or an idea. His pronunciation sometimes seems to merge words, and gentle as his voice is, some parts of a sentence become inaudible to me. In those moments, I find myself turning toward Byeong-gwon, who has become more attuned to Myung Hak’s way of speaking. It was then that I realized that understanding him was a matter of practice and habit. Byeong-gwon understands Myung Hak with ease.

In homolingual address, which is a regime of enunciation where speakers adopt the position of representing a supposedly homogeneous language society, the inability to achieve “transparent” communication—to assume a direct and unmediated flow of information—is often seen as a disadvantage that hinders social relations.6 The lack of unmediated comprehension in a conversation setting is often associated with a form of linguistic impairment and is viewed as a barrier. It presents a gap that needs to be filled or refers to a void borne from a loss—an impairment of the direct flow of information reminiscent of the biblical myth of the Tower of Babel. Overcoming this communication barrier is deemed the primary responsibility of the translator. Translation is therefore considered as a technology or a prosthetics which is secondary and supplementary to language. Its role is seen as an effort to restore or return to a prior norm of communication. In normative understanding, the act of translation is regarded as an exceptional task aimed at restoring the continuous flow of information where a disability is present.

<p>Police block a wheelchair with wooden sticks. Scan from Photo Album <em>&quot;Leave No One Behind: 10-year Record of Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination&quot;</em> 2007-2022.</p>

Police block a wheelchair with wooden sticks. Scan from Photo Album "Leave No One Behind: 10-year Record of Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination" 2007-2022.

Henri-Jacques Stiker critically commented on the assimilatory fervor in Western societies, writing that “the trick consists in this: in a liberal, prosperous, and technologically advanced society, means can be found so that the disabled no longer appear different. They will be admitted on the condition that they are perfectly assimilated to the able-bodied.”7 The more rehabilitation (provided by translation as prosthetics) is perfected, the more “barriers” become invisible—another commentary on the ongoing debate on the “translator’s invisibility.”8 How else should we understand another fervor—the one for the immediacy of translation by contemporary Large Language Models9—which strives to accomplish the ultimate linguistic rehabilitation? Yet, the question remains: What social relation is translation in the first place? Whose labor needs to be acknowledged here?

While I attempt in vain to transcribe the interview with Myung Hak and Byeong-gwon using several multilingual speech-to-text translation AI models, I find myself reflecting upon my work as a scholar in the field of Machine Translation. The linguistic and social dynamics inside that small room where we conducted the interview cannot be fully understood and automated by a statistical model. How could a Large Language Model describe the intricate details of our social relations? This challenge is not unique to this particular situation, but extends to any context where the work of care is present—be it assistance, comradeship, or translation. The conventional practice of attributing single authorship to multiple voices is a customary approach that fails to fully correspond to the complexity inherent in these relationships.

As I write this essay, I contemplate how to weave it with the transcript of our conversation with Myung Hak and Byeong-gwon, ensuring that no single voice dominates another. I ask myself once more, what does it mean to be dependent on someone else in the process of understanding or being understood? Byeong-gwon expressed concerns about the potential difficulty of conducting this interview. A few weeks prior, he interviewed Myung Hak for the school’s journal in celebration of Nodeul’s thirtieth anniversary. Byeong-gwon cautioned that the interview might not conform to standards, and any subsequent attempt at automated speech-to-text translation may encounter failure, as he has experienced such issues before. This short excerpt from his interview connects to the idea that conventional models, whether for carrying out interviews or language models, are useless because they cannot render the dissonances and divergences of enunciation:

I had two interviews last August. The conversation on the first day went nowhere. Nothing was sticking out in his words because I was looking for a dramatic story in his life. […] Then I realized my questions were useless. Only then did I hear something like the sound of flowing water inside Myung Hak. I realized that the frequency was wrong. Desolate, lonely, kind, and sweet words were flowing through him, but I had missed them before. He was not a person who poured outwards, but someone whose words were flowing inward.10

Nonconformity to a language model presents an essential resistance against the assimilation into normative communication frameworks. What happens when the act of resisting the purported transparency of communication not only involves opposition to language models but also challenges a labor model that has been modelled on the able body?

<p>Activists interrupt public transport during rush hour by chaining themselves in the underground tunnel. Scan from Photo Album  <em>&quot;Leave No One Behind: 10-year Record of Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination&quot;</em> 2007-2022.</p>

Activists interrupt public transport during rush hour by chaining themselves in the underground tunnel. Scan from Photo Album "Leave No One Behind: 10-year Record of Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination" 2007-2022.

3. “This is also Labor” 

Printed in large characters on the back of a worker’s sleeveless vest is the slogan of a campaign: Igeotdo Nodongida (이것도 노동이다. Eng.: This is also Labor). This slogan has encapsulated all Nodeul activities in recent years. I’ve come to understand that the sleeveless vest, often referred to as the work vest originated as a utilitarian garment designed to enhance the visibility of those engaged in various forms of manual labor. Often worn by laborers in the working class, it serves as a marker in the perception of Korean society. Worn to signify an activity such as work, it symbolizes the social responsibility assumed during work hours. When worn atop your daily clothes, your ordinary attire, it differentiates work time from private and recreational time.

While this vest typically serves as a tool for self-identification as a worker, or as a means to signal to others that one is engaged in work, at Nodeul the vest becomes a performative tool. Here, people wear it to assert that their actions deserve recognition and respect as legitimate labor. The pride and resilience associated with the vest reminds me of the concerns expressed by an old friend, Sergio Bologna, regarding the political power of the image of labor. The image of workers on the conveyor belt, clad in overalls, immediately evokes a specific context. In contrast, “observe the image of a person in front of a computer. It’s a work posture, isn’t it? […] Today’s work has become opaque, indeed invisible.” As Bologna noted, perhaps the scarce inherent value of a collective work “identity” lies in its lack of representability or “photogenicity”?11

<p>Nodeul School work vest with the slogan &quot;This is also labour,&quot; 2024. Photo: Goh Byeong-gwon.</p>

Nodeul School work vest with the slogan "This is also labour," 2024. Photo: Goh Byeong-gwon.

The Nodeul School work vest features a screenprint on the back that displays the Igeotdo Nodongida campaign slogan. When we meet Myung Hak for the interview, he is wearing that same Nodeul School work vest, and during a dance class at Nodeul, some of the teachers also have it on. The vest is frequently worn by students and activists during demonstrations. Part of this campaign is also a series of short YouTube videos. One of the videos, from August 2023, showcases a collage of images representing “ordinary” activities by students and teachers of Nodeul.12 In one sequence, a group is photographed standing in a circle with their backs to the camera, positioned outdoors in diverse landscapes of the countryside. Members of the group raise one hand above their heads or lean their heads forward, looking to the ground. The scene has a performative character and the happening has been clearly choreographed. Overlaid on the images is the text Boetineun Mom (버티는몸, Eng.: The body that withstands). I read the choreography as follows: the labor performed by the body to withstand discrimination. To resist discrimination is a skilful work that disabled bodies perform daily.

During the interview, I read a quote from Cheon Seong Ho (천성호), who, along with Myung Hak, is the co-principal of Nodeul: “In a capitalist society, workers must produce goods to receive their share, but from the perspective of people with severe disabilities, the goal is to produce rights.” Byeong-gwon explained that this perspective is connected to the idea that, in terms of profit, disabled people are prejudicially considered without value. When a workplace for the disabled is created, as seen at Jeongnip Electronics, known as Korea’s first welfare factory for the disabled, the work performed by a disabled person is often not regarded as labor but as a privilege. This is why Nodeul has been campaigning for the recognition of value in terms of the production of social meaning.

Nodeul’s advocacy for rights-centered jobs, tailored to people with severe disabilities, has focused on the recognition and representation of activities performed by people with disabilities as productive labor. In this context, the documentation of an activity is pivotal for recognizing it as labor and claiming compensation for it. Byeong-gwon explains that the labor vest must be worn and photographic documentation must be taken and submitted to the Seoul Metropolitan Government. This is how the school has written and created approximately 280 new job positions that acknowledge the movements of people with disabilities as “also labor.” In one case, the movement of one’s finger by a paralyzed person has been documented as performative labor, equivalent to conducting the start of an entire orchestra.

<p><em>Boetineun Mom</em> (The body that withstands). Photo: @kwonkeum<em> </em>@neuj_.</p>

Boetineun Mom (The body that withstands). Photo: @kwonkeum @neuj_.

Disability has been legally defined through a discriminatory rating system, which assesses one’s productive capacity, positing a zero-sum equation of work and impairment. In this scenario, the potential to make space for considering a finger’s gesture on artistic, performative, and collective levels creates the possibility of an exodus from normative correlations. The political value manifested in “also labor” exceeds individuation by describing labor as an inherently collective movement. This is a political undertaking to transform the concept and value of labor itself. Wasn’t it a controversial, avant-garde ideal of the 20th century to theorize the individual’s refusal to work in a capitalist society as an artistic practice? And wasn’t  “non-movement” or inaction inherent in a strike the most significant tool crafted by workers’ movements to collectively negotiate over the division of labor?

The slogan “This is also Labor” argues for the integral (rather than integrable) nature of disability to human existence in a way that necessitates the reconceptualization of the workday itself and expectations of productivity based on the divergent capacities of individuals within the collective. This isn’t a question pertaining to a minority group at stake, once again, is the collective bargaining of rights in our society. To paraphrase David T. Mitchell, since all people fear their inevitable transition into disability, why view personal human history only diachronically with disability at the end of the human narrative? It could instead be perceived synchronically (and collectively), represented everywhere as the dynamic and performative value of difference in human capacities.13

4. School of political ability

A note I took: Nodeul, entrance door, left side — “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if the reason you have come here is that your liberation is closely linked to mine, then let us work together.”

Something caught my attention the first time I entered the building. The glass door to access the building leads to a parking lot on the ground floor. Opposite the entrance is an elevator and a staircase to the upper floors, where Nodeul and various activist organizations advocating for the rights of the disabled find their home. Right at the threshold, next to the doorway, several piles of red plastic stools are neatly stored in lines along with protest placards leaning against the wall. On the placards is written, roughly translated, “It is not an organization that promotes violence: stop the hate politics that divides the rights of the disabled,” along with a depiction of Oh Se-hoon, the Seoul mayor.

<p>Nodeul entrance<em> </em>area with stools and posters used for demonstrations, 2023. Photo: Paolo Caffoni.</p>

Nodeul entrance area with stools and posters used for demonstrations, 2023. Photo: Paolo Caffoni.

This refers to the ongoing debate over the discrimination of the “good” and “bad” disabled: according to the government narrative, a good person with a disability stays outside the protest movement. Meanwhile the organization Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination (SADD), among others, has created a series of interventions in the public transportation system since 2001, “getting on the subway on the way to work,” strategically employing tactics to delay the underground and bus traffic during rush hour.

We meet Park Kyungseok (박경석), co-president of SADD and principal of Nodeul from 1997 to 2020, on our way out of Nodeul. We were informed that these days, Park’s involvement with the movement organization and several court trials, do not allow him to always be present at the school. We are lucky.

We are gifted a photo album book published in English: Leave No One Behind: 10-year Record of Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination. The strength of the protest images collected there is simply breathtaking. In the preface, Park writes, “Through the fight for access to public transportation, the severely disabled emerged in Korean history. The tragedy at Oido Station led disabled people to chain up and descend onto the subway track.” The reference is to January 22, 2001, when a person with a disability fell to his death from the stairlift at Oido Station. I turn the pages of the book and read the image captions:

Page 15: September 11, 2002. In the tunnel of Seoul City Hall Station. A group of activists occupy the subway track in wheelchairs. In a line, their heads pass through a metal ladder, which they use to chain themselves together. Right next to them, a long line of police officers holds their shields. No one gazes into the camera. I think of the oxymoron of the chain: a restriction of movement to reclaim the freedom of movement. 

Page 226: November 21, 2013. Disability rights activists in front of Yongin Dongbu Police Station protest against the violent arrest of people with disabilities. The photograph shows a line of police officers, each holding one foot over wooden joints aligned on the floor to prevent the wheelchairs from advancing. This is an image of extreme violence, depicting the brutality exercised by able bodies with a seemingly effortless gesture.

The threshold of the building is a symbolic space for reflection. In contrast to the classical image of political slogans on banners hung from façades of schools or universities—symbols of protest carried out by students and workers occupying the very institution they aim to transform—the protest placards and stools used by the Nodeul students and teachers, ready to hand at the entrance of the school, signal a preparedness for action. Students, activists, and teachers are prepared to embrace “arms” and leave the school building to take action in the public space. There is a term in the curriculum of Nodeul, “on-site class” or “fieldwork class” (현장수업), which is used to describe pedagogical activities taking place on the street in response to a call for action. 

We leave the school when it is already past dusk. On our way home, Yon and I share our excitement for this encounter. We cannot turn away from what we’ve witnessed.  I have to think retrospectively of the many schools and universities I’ve been crossing and working at in my life. Nodeul is a special place. It certainly shifted my perception: I realized that many educational institutions with able-bodied students too often produce politically unable subjects, while Nodeul is truly a school of political ability.

I would like to sincerely thank Byeong-gwon and Myung Hak, the community of Nodeul, for letting me witness this wholehearted “site.”

<p>A swing for people with disability in the Marronnier Park, 2023. Photo: Paolo Caffoni.</p>

A swing for people with disability in the Marronnier Park, 2023. Photo: Paolo Caffoni.


  1. Goh Byeong-gwon, “Death of the Intellectual in Korean Society,” in Traces: A Multilingual Series of Cultural Theory and Translation Vol. 5, ed. Brett de Bary, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

  2. Goh Byeong-gwon, “Marginalization vs. Minoritization: Expulsion by the State and Flight of the Masses.” Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1 (June, 2008).


  4. Nodeul (노들) is the abbreviation for the Korean word noran deulpan (노란들판) which means “yellow field.”

  5. The term adults with “severe disability” is contested because of its politically charged language and alignment with the medical model of disability, which views disability through the lens of diagnosis and treatment, often ignoring the social and environmental barriers that disabled people face. The Nodeul School community deliberately employs the term severe disability (중증장애인) to underscore the unique political challenges South Korea faces in this area. The school has been specifically taking in the most marginalized individuals within Korean society due to their disabilities, who have also experienced discrimination from within the disabled community itself.

  6. For the distinction between homolingual and heterolingual address see Naoki Sakai, Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” Cultural Nationalism (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 1997). For Sakai, homolingual is a form of address which is constituting national identities, it presuppose the translator’s invisibility and the normalcy of communication. In contrast, the heterolingual address belongs to nonaggregate communities, subjects in transit, and it assumes that “every utterance can fail to communicate because heterogeneity is inherent in any medium, linguistic or otherwise.”

  7. Henri-Jacques Stiker, A History of Disability (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan 1999), p. 132.

  8. Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (London: Routledge 1995).

  9. Large Language Models like GPT (OpenAI), BERT (Google), and LLaMA (Meta) are algorithmic statistical models commonly known as AI, utilizing artificial neural networks to execute tasks such as language generation, comprehension, and translation.

  10. Goh Byeong-gwon, “(30th Anniversary of Nodle Night School) Kim Myung-hak's Love, Like a Rock, Like a Mountain,” Be Minor, Accessed January 30, 2024,

  11. Sergio Bologna, “Sulla rappresentabilità del lavoro di oggi e sulla memoria del lavoro di ieri (On the representability of today’s work and on the memory of yesterday’s work),” in AA.VV., Dalla classe operaia alla creative class (From the working class to the creative class) (Rome: DeriveApprodi, 2009), p. 9.

  12. Nodeul School, “August 2023 This is also Labor,” Youtube, accessed January 30, 2024,

  13. David T. Mitchell, foreword to A History of Disability, cit., p. xxiii.

About the author

Paolo Caffoni

Published on 2024-03-28 12:00